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San Jose Sharks' Niclas Wallin, right, of Sweden, checks Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler during the first period. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (DARRYL DYCK)
San Jose Sharks' Niclas Wallin, right, of Sweden, checks Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler during the first period. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (DARRYL DYCK)

Gary Mason

Kesler, Thornton fighting for control Add to ...

From the opening faceoff, Ryan Kesler's ram-like confrontation with San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton became a symbol of what the playoff matchup between their two teams is sure to become.

There they were, the two most dominant centres on their teams in these Stanley Cup playoffs, crouched low in the faceoff circle, banging their helmets together in a fashion that signalled the start of a wicked turf war. They scowled and growled at one another and soon the series was on and, too, the beginnings of what could be an epic confrontation between two of the finest middle men in hockey today.

Just as Kesler's battle with Chicago centre Jonathan Toews in the first round of the playoffs became a mark of the animus that exists between the two teams, so too could the Vancouver Canucks star's clash with Thornton in the Western Conference final. While the Blackhawks may be Vancouver's most hated rival, San Jose is not far behind.

In the conference final opener, which Vancouver took 3-2, Thornton spent 16 1/2 minutes on the ice five-on-five. Kesler was on for about 7 1/2 minutes of that time, while Henrik Sedin got about 4 3/4 minutes of it. The remainder was split between Maxim Lapierre and Cody Hodgson. It was the Canucks that used home-ice advantage to free Kesler from Thornton and give him and his linemates a little more breathing room.

Thornton has been the Sharks' most dangerous player in the postseason and had a goal and an assist against Vancouver on Sunday. Because of that he's expected to see plenty of Kesler, who remains Vancouver's top shutdown centre.

If that is the case, it could have fascinating ramifications for the Canucks.

Kesler went scoreless in the first round, while glued to Toews, whom he prevented from scoring until the dying minutes of Game 7. When Kesler had no such obligations in the second round, he exploded offensively and surged to the top of the NHL playoff scoring race and most people's lists of Conn Smythe Trophy candidates.

If Kesler has to become similarly obsessed with Thornton at the expense of his offence, it will put more pressure on the Sedin and his brother, Daniel, to score. Kesler had one assist in the series opener. But all this remains to be seen. Kesler is playing like someone possessed and it's hard to imagine him going goalless in this series.

What we know for sure is that whenever he and Thornton are on the ice together it will make for an epic encounter.

"You have two elite players who desperately want to win," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said in advance of Game 2. "They are a similar size, have a similar skill set and are both extremely competitive hockey players."

Kesler and Thornton make fascinating studies.

Jumbo Joe was a hockey prodigy, a ginormous 6-foot-4, 230-pound natural athlete who was taken first overall by the Boston Bruins in the 1997 entry draft only to be traded midseason seven years later, viewed as a major disappointment. He responded by winning the league scoring and most valuable player titles in the same campaign.

For most of his career, Thornton, now 31, was viewed as a playoff underachiever. At least until last season, when, despite the Sharks' West final exit to Chicago, he became one of San Jose's most important leaders on and off the ice. It was that postseason performance, coach Todd McLellan said this week, that convinced management he was captain material, a distinction bestowed on him this season.

Thornton's play has been inspired in these playoffs, especially away from the puck. He has relished matchups against the other team's top offensive threats. He is playing like someone who knows his chances of winning a Cup are dwindling.

Kesler, meantime, was relatively unknown when he was taken 23rd by the Canucks in 2003. The speedy 6-foot-2 200-pounder quickly developed a reputation as a defensive specialist. This year, however, the 26-year-old's 41 goals firmly established his offensive bona fides and made him one of the best overall players in the game. His second-round series against the Nashville Predators is considered one of the greatest individual playoff performances in Canucks franchise history.

Kesler seems genetically designed for the playoffs. And he finds himself on a team that has the potential to win multiple Cups over the next few years. He can see it and taste it and he seems determined to make it happen this year through force of will alone. But then, so does Thornton, whose field of opportunity to win the Cup no longer stretches out as far in front of him as it once did.

It is all this that you sense and feel when the pair line up against one another in these playoffs.

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